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Turn on the bright lights: AV & lighting

Lighting can play as important a role within all aspects of audio-video as sound and video – particularly live production – so why is it often overlooked in the AV sector? Paul Lydon looks at how this very creative discipline is now shining brighter and what technologies are pushing it further

Within AV, an important and longer-established element of video’s partnership with sound is lighting, as summed up in the older phrase son et lumière – although this has predominantly been used to describe outdoor presentations with a light show projected onto a historic building.

Even though it is not specifically highlighted in the abbreviation ‘AV’, lighting is still there playing a key role in creating either a spectacle, an atmosphere, or even just working in concert (no pun intended!) to ensure the video aspect of AV is easy on the eye; think of the importance of basic LED lighting in a boardroom, for instance.

Concerts and large-scale performance events, as well as corporate presentations, deploy lighting extensively, while theatre and, to less obvious but no less effective extent, museums and other public spaces such as restaurants, rely on them to create a sense of place or a background ambience.

Although lighting may be somewhat overlooked in relation to sound and video, while still being part of the overall production or installation, those working closely with the technology are, as would be expected, convinced of its importance. “It’s the forgotten part but frequently the subtle part,” comments Sebastian Bückle, chief sales officer of Astera LED. “Flashy video effects and booming immersive audio are apparent to an audience; they’re frequently used for a ‘shock and awe’ effect. But with lighting, when it’s done well, it is something you don’t consciously notice but you feel it in your bones.”

he 2024 Mayday ‘mother of all raves’ in Dortmund’s Westfalenhalle featuring 102 GLP JDC2 IP lighting fixtures

This is because, Bückle explains, lighting deeply affects emotion and mood: “It reveals and conceals, setting tone and expectation. A production can get by without flashy video or audio, because good storytelling can carry the load. But without good lighting, that storytelling will always be severely impacted. Lighting is discrete but still incredibly important.”

Astera LED produces a range of luminaires that includes Fresnels for performance and film applications but also tubes, panels and bulbs that are used in theatres and at events as well by filmmakers. Bückle makes the point that theatrical lighting is “much more nuanced”, giving the example of a 2023 Shakespeare in the Park production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream in Singapore that used NYX bulbs to emphasise the magical and mischievous nature of the play, but also produce a ‘cityscape’ effect.

Ryan Hindinger, market manager for concert, touring and live experiences at ACT Entertainment, agrees that lighting might sometimes feel like the unsung hero of AV but sees its impact as undeniable. “While audio and video often steal the spotlight – and budget – lighting is what ties everything together and makes the rest work,” he says. “It sets the mood and enhances the overall experience. As the industry continues to recognise the importance of holistic AV design, lighting is gaining the attention it deserves. It’s not been forgotten, it’s just that the best lighting designs are so seamless you might not realise how vital they are until they’re not there.”

ACT Entertainment’s lighting systems are used extensively for concerts and live events but, says Hindinger, other areas in the AV market are also utilising the latest techniques. “On the installation side, LED fixtures and control systems are being used prolifically in museums, retail and hospitality spaces,” he outlines. “Offices and public areas are also increasingly adopting smarter lighting systems that integrate with other building management systems for energy efficiency and customisation. For live work, there’s a lot of technology being deployed to ensure every experience is new and inspiring.”

At systems integration company Marquee AV there is some acknowledgement that lighting can be seen as “a poor relation” but also the view of lighting as creating the “wow factor” in the theatre or at a live concert. This carries over into other types of installation, a good example of which is the recently opened Sexy Fish restaurant in Manchester’s trendy Spinningfields dining and shopping district. Reviewers have commented on its aesthetic as much as the food, as the lighting works with the decor and Damien Hirst sculptures to create a distinct look.

Stacey Tough, a director of Marquee AV and project manager for Sexy Fish Manchester, outlines that the lighting installation is based on an Avolites Titan PC suite and Quartz lighting desk, with the latter receiving commands from the house lighting system over a KNX backbone.

Ayrton Eurus Profile lighting system on rapper Kontra K’s recent tour

“We also have dual DMX control paths: one via IP/Art-Net and one using standard DMX,” Tough explains. “All the LED to the columns in the restaurant were provided with custom removable panels housing decoders and power supplies because each column as its own requirement. There are two moving heads: Ayrton Diablos are used where the illumination of the artwork is like a frame and Chauvet Rogue R2X Spots for where there is no framing.”

Chris Ferrante, chief executive of Ayrton, jokes that perhaps AV should be expanded to either LAV or AVL to incorporate lighting and give it equal billing with audio and other visual technologies. He observes that post-pandemic there was an “incredibly aggressive” two to three year period that is now beginning to cool off, although competition between the leading manufacturers remains high. 

“This has resulted in a more complex and confused space,” Ferrante comments. “The lighting business is very regional in nature and some regions, such as the Middle East, remain on positive growth trajectories. In this climate it is essential to remain at the cutting edge of technology with a focus on innovation.”

Agreeing that the AV lighting market is “being driven by technological advancements”, Simon Barrett, head of GLP UK, says there is particular demand for “even higher quality fixtures” that also offer efficient energy consumption. “The idea of environmental impact and energy efficiency is on everybody’s radar, at every level of the supply chain,” he observes. “It’s becoming more of a requirement that what we offer is more sustainable and has a lower environmental impact than other fixtures.”

Barrett adds that in the live sector LED technology has now advanced to the point of offering high output and quality as well as high power. “Before, there was always a compromise between output and quality but technology has advanced to the point where the output is now high enough for us to be able to offer high quality as well. With greater efficiency we no longer have to push LEDs to their limit, which allows us to have a much higher quality of lighting. There is also a massive move towards IP [ingress protection]-rated fixtures for outdoor use. We now have suppliers that won’t buy anything unless it is IP-rated. We have two IP-rated products, the impression X5 IP Maxx and impression X5 Bar 1000, and will release another soon after showing it in prototype form at Prolight + Sound.”

Sony Professional imagines the future workplace. Lighting is ever more challenging in enterprise AV, with ubiquitous video conferencing

With the dominance of LED, Barrett feels that the previous leading technologies, HMI and tungsten, have a “very limited part to play nowadays”, partly due to both having poor energy efficiency and problems in obtaining replacement lamps. The lighting team at Marquee AV agrees that LED is dominant today but with tungsten and decorative lighting still having a niche.

Sebastian Bückle at Astera LED also sees LED as likely to continue to dominate the market for commercial applications but feels there is still room for other illumination formats. “LED provides equal or better effects at a lower cost in a more efficient manner,” he says. “But lighting is an art form and, like any art form, it’s not always the outcome but the process that matters. Because of this there will always be a role for traditional lighting forms.”

Bückle continues that the growth of live production is now putting greater demands on lighting manufacturers to deliver both control and responsiveness. “Having seamless coordination from a remote point is crucial, which we provide through our TITAN LED engine,” he says. “Automation and remote and wireless control are –  to an extent – expected in a lighting system now. All our lights have been developed for wireless DMX connectivity, with the TITAN offering the ability to have different ways of grouping and coordinating those lights.”

Ryan Hindinger of ACT Entertainment views automation and remote control as “revolutionising how we interact” with lighting systems. “Solid-state, networked controllers, like those from Visual Productions, enable cloud-based control for lighting in all types of spaces, from offices to theme parks,” he says. “The trend is towards systems that can be monitored and controlled from anywhere, providing greater efficiency and responsiveness. For live experiences, one of the most exciting developments is the widespread implementation of real-time tracking systems such as zactrack, which allow for lighting, audio, video and scenery to react to where actors are on stage and change for different set pieces.”

When it comes to lighting formats, Hindinger sees LED as “the star player”, not only because of its energy efficiency but also its longevity and versatility. “However, other technologies like HMI and tungsten each have a niche,” he says. “HMI lights are favoured for high-intensity output in film and television, while tungsten’s warm glow is cherished for certain theatrical applications. Decorative lighting often incorporates a mix of technologies to achieve specific aesthetic goals. So, while LED far and away leads the pack, there’s still a place for the classics.”

Sexy Fish Manchester features a lighting installation by Marquee AV

In the field of stage performance, Aryton’s Chris Ferrante confirms that LED continues to be dominant. “In fact, we have only ever developed solid state-based lighting fixtures in our over 20 years of existence,” he says. “Metal halide fixtures remain in circulation, although in much smaller quantities now and I would expect them to disappear in the next few years. The most recent development has been the successful deployment of laser phosphor light sources in stage lighting fixtures.”

This new form of light source is based on the principle of shining blue light from laser diodes onto a spinning wheel coated with yellow phosphor. Among the leading developers of this technique is Dr Shuji Nakamura, who invented blue LED technology. Current products based on this include the Ayrton Cobra moving head, which features a laser phosphor light source in conjunction with a LED engine.

“We finally have a source that enables proper/concentrated beams of lights, previously accomplished by short arc lamps,” comments Ferrante. “The interesting element here is that this newly deployed tech is redefining our impression of the beam. What we once thought was a beam is being replaced by what is actually a beam.”

Also, Ferrante does not see lighting technology changing for the AV market in particular. “There will, however, be a continued focus on increases in efficiency while at the same time reducing size and weight. In addition, the clear trend of creating single units that can tackle the broadest number of markets will continue, in addition to making all products weather and dust proof.”

Now that the ‘new’ technologies of LED and wireless control are firmly established in lighting, Sebastian Bückle sees the future more about the creative application of them rather than just the technology itself. “Manufacturers will have to start thinking like lighting engineers,” he says. “They’re not just selling technological tools but sources of creative potential. Thinking differently about how and why lighting is applied to a situation will shape product development as much – or maybe more – than incremental technical advancement.”

Ryan Hindinger’s take is that the future of AV lighting is all about smarter and more integrated systems. “Expect to see more connected, data-driven lighting solutions that adapt in real-time to changing conditions and user preferences,” he concludes. “Advances in wireless technology will make set-ups even more flexible, and sustainable practices will drive innovation in eco-friendly lighting products. As immersive experiences are sought by broader swaths of the market, lighting will play an increasingly crucial role in crafting these environments, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in AV design.”

Lighting in the creative arts has always been about more than just making sure people can see clearly what is going on. It can be creative in itself, and that capability is certainly being given freer rein by the power of not just the luminaires – LED in particular – themselves, but also the means of controlling them.

What’s clear, overall, is that lighting is as much a part of AV as are all of the visual elements of audio-video. No lighting, no installations!